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Secret Vampire (Chapter 4)

Poppy was staring without appetite at a dinner tray of chicken nuggets and french fries when Dr. Franklin came in the room.

The tests were over. The CAT scan had been all right, if claustrophobic, but the ERCP had been awful. Poppy could still feel the ghost of the tube in her throat every time she swallowed.

"You're leaving all this great hospital food," Dr. Franklin said with gentle humor. Poppy managed a smile for him.

He went on talking about innocuous things. He didn't say anything about the test results, and Poppy had no idea when they were supposed to come in. She was suspicious of Dr. Franklin, though. Something about him, the gentle way he patted her foot under the blanket or the shadows around his eyes . . .

When he casually suggested that Poppy's mother might want to "come for a little walk down the hall," Poppy's suspicion crystallized.

He's going to tell her. He's got the results, but he doesn't want me to know.

Her plan was made in the same instant. She yawned and said, "Go on, Mom; I'm a little bit sleepy." Then she lay back and shut her eyes.

As soon as they were gone, she got off the bed. She watched their retreating backs as they went down the hall into another doorway. Then, in her stocking feet, she quietly followed them.

She was delayed for several minutes at the nursing station. "Just stretching my legs," she said to a nurse who looked inquiringly at her, and she pretended to be walking at random. When the nurse picked up a clipboard and went into one of the patients' rooms, Poppy hurried on down the corridor.

The room at the end was the waiting room – she'd seen it earlier. It had a TV and a complete kitchen setup so relatives could hang out in comfort. The door was ajar and Poppy approached it stealthily. She could hear the low rumble of Dr. Franklin's voice, but she couldn't hear what he was saying.

Very cautiously Poppy edged closer.

She chanced one look around the door.She saw at once that there was no need for caution. Everyone in that room was completely occupied.

Dr. Franklin was sitting on one of the couches. Beside him was an African-American woman with glasses on a chain around her neck. She was wearing the white coat of a doctor.

On the other couch was Poppy's stepfather, Cliff. His normally perfect dark hair was slightly mussed, his rock-steady jaw was working. He had his arm around her mother. Dr. Franklin was talking to both of them, his hand on her mother's shoulder.

And Poppy's mother was sobbing.

Poppy pulled back from the doorway.

Oh, my God. I've got it.

She'd never seen her mother cry before. Not when Poppy's grandmother had died, not during the divorce from Poppy's father. Her mother's specialty was coping with things; she was the best coper Poppy had ever known.

But now . . .

I've got it. I've definitely got it.

Still, maybe it wasn't so bad. Her mom was shocked, okay, that was natural. But it didn't mean that Poppy was going to die or anything. Poppy had all of modern medicine on her side.

She kept telling herself this as she edged away from the waiting room.

She didn't edge fast enough, though. Before she got out of earshot, she heard her mother's voice, raised in something like anguish.

"My baby. Oh, my little girl."

Poppy froze.

And then Cliff, loud and angry: "You're trying to tell me there's nothing?"

Poppy couldn't feel her own breathing. Against her will, she moved back to the door.

"Dr. Loftus is an oncologist; an expert on this sort of cancer. She can explain better than I can," Dr. Franklin was saying.

Then a new voice came – the other doctor. At first Poppy could only catch scattered phrases that didn't seem to mean anything: adenocarcinoma, splenic venous occlusion, Stage Three. Medical jargon. Then Dr. Loftus said, "To put it simply, the problem is that the tumor has spread. It's spread to the liver and the lymph nodes around the pancreas. That means it's unresectable – we can't operate."

Cliff said, "But chemotherapy . . ."

"We might try a combination of radiation and chemotherapy with something called 5-fluorouracil. We've had some results with that. But I won't mislead you. At best it may improve her survival time by a few weeks. At this point, we're looking at palliative measures – ways to reduce her pain and improve the qualityof the time she has left. Do you understand?"

Poppy could hear choking sobs from her mother, but she couldn't seem to move. She felt as if she were listening to some play on the radio. As if it had nothing to do with her.

Dr. Franklin said, "There are some research protocols right here in southern California. They're experimenting with immunotherapy and cryogenic surgery. Again, we're talking about palliation rather than a cure – "

"Damn it!" Cliff's voice was explosive. "You're talking about a little girl! How did this get to – to Stage Three – without anybody noticing? This kid was dancing all night two days ago."

"Mr. Hilgard, I'm sorry," Dr. Loftus said so softly that Poppy could barely pick up the words. "This kind of cancer is called a silent disease, because there are very few symptoms until it's very far advanced. That's why the survival rate is so low. And I have to tell you that Poppy is only the second teenager I've seen with this kind of tumor. Dr. Franklin made an extremely acute diagnosis when he decided to send her in for testing."

"I should have known," Poppy's mother said in a thick voice. "I should have made her come in sooner. I should have – I should have – "

There was a banging sound. Poppy looked around the door, forgetting to be inconspicuous. Her mother was hitting the Formica table over and over. Cliff was trying to stop her.

Poppy reeled back.

Oh, God, I've got to get out of here. I can't see this. I can't look at this.

She turned and walked back down the hall. Her legs moved. Just like always. Amazing that they still worked.

And everything around her was just like always. The nursing station was still decorated for the Fourth of July. Her suitcase was still on the padded window seat in her room. The hardwood floor was still solid underneath her.

Everything was the same – but how could it be? How could the walls be still standing? How could the TV be blaring in the next room?

I'm going to die, Poppy thought.

Strangely enough, she didn't feel frightened. What she felt was vastly surprised. And the surprise kept coming, over and over, with every thought being interrupted by those four words.

It's my fault because (I'm going to die) I didn't go to the doctor's sooner.

Cliff said "damn" for me (I'm going to die). I didn't know he liked me enough to swear.

Her mind was racing wildly.

Something in me, she thought. I'm going to die because of something that's inside me, like that alien in the movie. It's in me right now. Right now.

She put both hands to her stomach, then pulled up her T-shirt to stare at her abdomen. The skin was smooth, unblemished. She didn't feel any pain.

But it's in there and I'm going to die because of it. Die soon. I wonder how soon? I didn't hear them talk about that.

I need James.

Poppy reached for the phone with a feeling that her hand was detached from her body. She dialed, thinking, Please be there.

But this time it didn't work. The phone rang and rang. When the answering machine came on, Poppy said, "Call me at the hospital." Then she hung up and stared at the plastic pitcher of ice water by her bedside.

He'll get in later, she thought. And then he'll call me. I just have to hang on until then.

Poppy wasn't sure why she thought this, but suddenly it was her goal. To hang on until she could talk to James. She didn't need to think about anything until then; she just had to survive. Once she talked to James, she could figure out what she was supposed to be feeling, what she was supposed to do now.

There was a light knock at the door. Startled, Poppy looked up to see her mother and Cliff. For a moment all she could focus on was their faces, which gave her the strange illusion that the faces were floating in midair.

Her mother had red and swollen eyes. Cliff was pale, like a piece of crumpled white paper, and his jaw looked stubbly and dark in contrast.

Oh, my God, are they going to tell me? They can't; they can't make me listen to it.

Poppy had the wild impulse to run. She was on the verge of panic.

But her mother said, "Sweetie, some of your friends are here to see you. Phil called them this afternoon to let them know you were in the hospital, and they just arrived."

James, Poppy thought, something springing free in her chest. But James wasn't part of the group that came crowding through the doorway. It was mostly girls from school.

It doesn't matter. He'll call later. I don't have to think now.

As a matter of fact, it was impossible to think with so many visitors in the room. And that was good. It was incredible that Poppy could sit there and talk to them when part of her was farther away than Neptune, but she did talk and that kept her brain turned off.

None of them had any idea that something serious was wrong with her. Not even Phil, who was at his brotherly best, very kind and considerate. They talked about ordinary things, about parties and Rollerblading and music and books. Things from Poppy's old life, which suddenly seemed to have been a hundred years ago.

Cliff talked, too, nicer than he had been since the days when he was courting Poppy's mother.

But finally the visitors left, and Poppy's mother stayed. She touched Poppy every so often with hands that shook slightly. If I didn't know, I'd know, Poppy thought. She isn't acting like Mom at all.

"I think I'll stay here tonight," her mother said. Not quite managing to sound offhand. "The nurse said I can sleep on the window seat; it's really a couch for parents. I'm just trying to decide whether I should run back to the house and get some things."

"Yes, go," Poppy said. There was nothing else she could say and still pretend that she didn't know. Besides, her mom undoubtedly needed some time by herself, away from this.

Just as her mother left, a nurse in a flowered blouse and green scrub pants came in to take Poppy's temperature and blood pressure. And then Poppy was alone.

It was late. She could still hear a TV, but it was far away. The door was ajar, but the hallway outside was dim. A hush seemed to have fallen over the ward.

She felt very alone, and the pain was gnawing deep inside her. Beneath the smooth skin of her abdomen, the tumor was making itself known.

Worst of all, James hadn't called. How could he not call? Didn't he know she needed him?

She wasn't sure how long she could go on not thinking about It.

Maybe the best thing would be to try to sleep. Get unconscious. Then she couldn't think.

But as soon as she turned out the light and closed her eyes, phantoms swirled around her. Not images of pretty bald girls; skeletons. Coffins. And worst of all, an endless darkness.

If I die, I won't be here. Will I be anywhere? Or will I just Not Be at all?

It was the scariest thing she'd ever imagined, Not-Being. And she was definitely thinking now, she couldn't help it. She'd lost control. A galloping fear consumed her, made her shiver under the rough sheet and thin blankets. I'm going to die, I'm going to die, I'm going to –

"Poppy."

Her eyes flew open. For a second she couldn't identify the black silhouette in the darkened room. She had a wild idea that it was Death itself coming to get her.

Then she said, "James?"

"I wasn't sure if you were asleep."

Poppy reached for the bedside button that turned on the light, but James said, "No, leave it off. I had to sneak past the nurses, and I don't want them to throw me out."

Poppy swallowed, her hands clenched on a fold of blanket. "I'm glad you came," she said. "I thought you weren't going to come." What she really wanted was to throw herself into his arms and sob and scream.

But she didn't. It wasn't just that she'd never done anything like that with him before; it was something about him that stopped her. Something she couldn't put her finger on, but that made her feel almost . . . frightened.

The way he was standing? The fact that she couldn't see his face? All she knew was that James suddenly seemed like a stranger.

He turned around and very slowly closed the heavy door.

Darkness. Now the only light came in through the window. Poppy felt curiously isolated from the rest of the hospital, from the rest of the world.

And that should have been good, to be alone with James, protected from everything else. If only she weren't having this weird feeling of not recognizing him.

"You know the test results," he said quietly. It wasn't a question.

"My mom doesn't know I know," Poppy said. How could she be talking coherently when all she wanted to do was scream? "I overheard the doctors telling her. . . . James, I've got it. And . . . it's bad; it's a bad kind of cancer. They said it's already spread. They said I'm going to . . ." She couldn't get the last word out, even though it was shrieking through her mind.

"You're going to die," James said. He still seemed quiet and centered. Detached.

"I read up on it," James went on, walking over to the window and looking out. "I know how bad it is. The articles said there was a lot of pain. Serious pain."

"James," Poppy gasped.

"Sometimes they have to do surgery just to try to stop the pain. But whatever they do, it won't save you. They can fill you full of chemicals and irradiate you, and you'll still die. Probably before the end of summer."

"James – "

"It will be your last summer – "

"James, for God's sake!" It was almost a scream. Poppy was breathing in great shaking gulps, clinging to the blankets. "Why are you doing this to me?"

He turned and in one movement seized her wrist, his fingers closing over the plastic hospital bracelet. "I want you to understand that they can't help you," he said, ragged and intense. "Do you understand that?"

"Yes, I understand," Poppy said. She could hear the mounting hysteria in her own voice. "But is that what you came here to say? Do you want to kill me?"

His fingers tightened painfully. "No! I want to save you." Then he let out a breath and repeated it more quietly, but with no less intensity. "I want to save you, Poppy."

Poppy spent a few moments just getting air in and out of her lungs. It was hard to do it without dissolving into sobs. "Well, you can't," she said at last. "Nobody can."

"That's where you're wrong." Slowly he released her wrist and gripped the bed rail instead. "Poppy, there's something I've got to tell you. Something about me."

"James . . ." Poppy could breathe now, but she didn't know what to say. As far as she could tell, James had gone crazy. In a way, if everything else hadn't been so awful, she might have been flattered. James had lost his consummate cool – over her. He was upset enough about her situation to go completely nonlinear.

"You really do care," she said softly, with a laugh that was half a sob. She put a hand on his where it rested on the bed rail.

He laughed shortly in turn. His hand flipped over to grasp hers roughly; then he pulled away. "You have no idea," he said in a terse, strained voice.

Looking out the window, he added, "You think you know everything about me, but you don't. There's something very important that you don't know."

By now Poppy just felt numb. She couldn't understand why James kept harping on himself, when she was the one about to die. But she tried to conjure up some sort of gentleness for him as she said, "You can tell me anything. You know that."

"But this is something you won't believe. Not to mention that it's breaking the laws."

"The law?"

"The laws. I go by different laws than you. Human laws don't mean much to us, but our own are supposed to be unbreakable."

"James," Poppy said, with blank terror. He really was losing his mind.

"I don't know the right way to say it. I feel like somebody in a bad horror movie." He shrugged, and said without turning, "I know how this sounds, but . . . Poppy, I'm a vampire."

Poppy sat still on the bed for a moment. Then she groped out wildly toward the bedside table. Her fingers closed on a stack of little crescent-shaped plastic basins and she threw the whole stack at him.

"You bastard !" she screamed, and reached for something else to throw.

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